Posts Tagged ‘Okinawan Prefectural Museum’

I’m only first hearing of this now, but back in April, the appointment of a new director to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum apparently raised some considerable controversy – and, from what I understand, with good reason. The new appointee, Shiraho Taiichi (白保台一), is a former member of the Lower House of the Diet, a Komeitô politician, not a historian or art specialist, and furthermore, it seems the decision was made more or less unilaterally by Okinawa Governor Nakaima Hirokazu.

I am actually currently working on revising a formal paper on the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and its biases, which I’ll be presenting at the Western [United States] Museums Association conference here in Honolulu at the end of September. In the paper, I do criticize the museum for its pro-Japanese and anti-US slant, and for not doing as much as it might have to represent a more “independent” (and anti-Japanese) Okinawan voice. Yet, under former kanchô Makino Hirotaka, while the History of Okinawa displays in the main permanent exhibitions hall have their issues, the museum did put on many excellent, very forward-thinking, exhibitions, introducing aspects of Okinawan history and culture never before explored in such a fashion, and doing so quite often with a decidedly Okinawan “voice,” i.e. from a decidedly Okinawan, and not mainland Japanese, point of view.

An opinion piece (or “objective” news article?) in the Okinawa Times entitled [館長人事]えっ どうして?なんで? (“Museum Director HR. Wha? Why? Why?”) explains the situation. Mr. Shiraho apparently has no connections to the cultural world, and no experience in cultural institutions. It’s not entirely uncommon in Japan for prominent political or business figures to “descend from Heaven” (天下り, amakudari) into the museum world, as it’s believed that such people can better attract private funding, public support, gifts, etc. But, the Okinawa Times argues, that is not the case with Mr. Shiraho. It’s not that he’s “descending” from a relevant governmental agency, nor is it simply that they’re hiring from outside; he is from such a completely different field that it produces feelings of unease. The journalist writes that the whole thing “smells strongly of politics.”

Governor Nakaima says that other staff will deal with the professional/technical stuff, the arts/history stuff, and that Mr. Shiraho, with his Chinese connections, can help promote cross-cultural exchanges.

As the article points out, and with which I completely agree, the ideal museum director should have the kinds of connections and familiarity with the art world that he can get prominent artists* to get involved or to be shown, and can get good pieces from private collections or elsewhere, both within the prefecture and beyond, to come to the museum, either as loans or as acquisitions. (*Or not so prominent artists, who are really good and ought to be up-and-coming, spotted, “scouted”, “discovered” by the museum director with a proper eye for art.) Building a collection, staging ground-breaking exhibits, playing an active role in the local art scene and beyond, these things require a director who has experience, connections, and the right attitude and perspective – someone who is an art world person, not a random politician from out in left field.

Someone once explained to me that the prefectural museums are quite closely tied to the prefectural governments, and that staff can, and do, get shuffled around between the museum, the main prefectural office, the Board of Education, and a handful of other institutions. It’s not like in the US, where you work in a given position in a given institution and remain there without being shuffled around at the whims of the government every few months or years – even if that institution is part of, or under, a larger one such as the state or the federal government. This explanation came after I expressed interest in “how cool would it be if” I could get a job at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (or, for that matter, one of the National Museums). … Apparently, it’s a risky proposition, and even more difficult than I might have expected to break in, as it’s really a bureaucrat post, not a specialist art historian post. I guess. Certainly, at the least, that seems to be what happened with the director.

..Actually, it would seem that’s more or less what happened with the last director as well. Makino Hirotaka, prior to becoming the first director of the newly re-established (re-organized) Okinawa Prefectural Museum, was the deputy governor of the prefecture. He received criticism at that time as well, but it was argued that his extensive management experience was essential for (re-)establishing, organizing, and opening the new museum.

Furthermore, the museum has been moved from being under the prefectural board of education, to now being under the board of culture, tourism and sports. While I won’t presume to say I know anything about the impact this will have on the ground, in concept it seems a bad move for the educational quality or intellectual integrity of the institution. If you want to have a museum that’s a popular tourist destination, and a shiny fun piece of cultural promotion, then, sure, go, have fun. But, if you want to have a museum that has some integrity as a quality institution of academic production and education, producing exhibitions (not to mention lecture series, symposia, etc.) that expand the field, push the boundaries, and that educate, well, that’s a different story.

The Okinawa Times has actually published several articles about the appointment of Mr. Shiraho, and the accompanying controversy, as has the Ryukyu Shimpo.

Ryukyu Shimpo – Opposition Party calls this the “stain of politics”; Deputy Governor refuses to repeal the decision.

I find this interesting in light of the fact that when I searched for news articles about the creation of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (which opened in 2007), seeking to find anything about possible controversies that may have existed at that time over whether the museum was being pro-Okinawan enough, or was too anti-Japanese, or the like, I found basically nothing. The only materials I found were sort of platitudes, if that’s the right word, saying only positive things about how new and shiny the museum was, how nice it is to have a museum highlighting Okinawa’s history and culture, and a museum which will serve from here on as a center for the creation of new culture. There seemed a noticeable absence of any mention of it being a museum highlighting Okinawan voice or Okinawan perspective, something that Bishop Museum in Hawaii, for example, put foremost and quite explicitly in its materials.

So, anyway, the Japanese (and the Okinawans) are apparently not so shy about controversy as I might have expected, and the newspapers not quite so much in bed with the politicians and/or the museum. I found no criticisms whatsoever of the new museum when it opened, and wondered if everyone was just putting on their happy tatemae face, refusing to discuss their honne feelings about the perspectives presented there. But, now we see people expressing themselves quite explicitly, in their concern that Mr. Shiraho is in no way the right person for this job.

I, myself, have high hopes and aspirations for the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. They’ve got a gorgeous building, and have done some fabulous work constructing exhibits highlighting Okinawan history and culture in ways & to an extent never seen before. They have the potential to become a real major, prominent, active center of cultural activity on the island (and for Okinawans throughout Japan and the world). I think I would love to work there someday (if the bureaucracy of it all, and Japanese office culture doesn’t kill me). I hope, to put it bluntly, that Mr. Shiraho doesn’t fuck things up. Only time will tell.

Photo taken myself, March 2008.

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Another in the series of articles on places I visited this past year. Though I am evidently finding plenty to write about, I regret not starting doing this blog earlier, when I was in Japan and had more experiences to write about on the day of, or even years ago when I was interning at the MFA. Still, my loyal readers who don’t comment, I don’t imagine you mind.

The Okinawa Prefectural Museum opened at a new location in November 2007. Like the Kyushu National Museum which I very much regret not getting to see, and indeed the Kanazawa Art Museum of which I only saw the lobby and outside (no time to see the exhibits in my short, action-packed visit), it has an open, airy, light, and ultramodern feel. Everything feels brand new (it is), bright, colorful, very clean, and exciting. I can certainly appreciate that Okinawan culture, history, art, and natural history are very esoteric topics, and that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone (tons of people couldn’t even tell you a single thing about Okinawa to begin with; it’s totally off their radar, and I don’t blame them), but that aside, I feel like the building has an energy to it that makes it feel like a place where exciting things happen. A place where I’d want to visit frequently and get involved in attending events. A place I dream of working at.

The building, in white limestone and a rather ultramodern style, is said to be meant to recall a gusuku, or Okinawan-style castle. Though that’s certainly not something that came to mind when I saw it, I really appreciate that such thought is put into the implied meanings in the design. The same kind of artistic creativity and thoughtfulness can be seen at the entrance to the Natural History section, which one enters by walking over a blue and colorless glass floor which covers an array of coral. It represents the idea of wading in from the surf and approaching the islands of the Ryukyus. Again, even if that meaning escaped me consciously, on a subtler level I definitely appreciated the mood and atmosphere it inspires.

Though I must say that the art museum section, from what I saw of it, was rather unimpressive, the other half of the building (history, natural history, folklife, etc) was fantastic. Art and artifacts were used to represent, express, and bring to life the history of the islands in a way no US museum does (with the exception of American history museums). As the focus was on representing history rather than on displaying real original works of art, reproductions of famous, particularly illustrative or appropriate works could be (and were extensively) used, and high technology elements were also used to great effect.
The first room of the natural history section has a large wrap-around screen displaying a very interesting, beautiful, and well put-together video about the geologic origins of the island, and of the evolution of its flora and fauna. Perhaps most impressive was a map of the archipelago projected onto the floor of one of the main history rooms. A number of interactive computer terminals could be used to explore a wide variety of aspects of each island, from local customs to meibutsu (名物, local specialties; goods, foods, etc) and meisho (名所, famous sites).

The museum also includes a seemingly extensive library, a sculpture garden in the back with large modern/contemporary art works, facing onto a large public park, and in the front reproductions of traditional style buildings which visitors are actually allowed to enter. I was also really impressed by the Hands-On Experience Room (ふれあい体験室) – normally I’m not really one to give much thought to Museum Education, to children’s rooms or the like, but this was just really well done, containing a great variety of puzzles, games, and all sorts of things to touch and try, from rocks typical of Okinawa to skulls and models of native animals, to traditional clothing and musical instruments.

When I think of the Museum of Science where I used to work, the very first thing that comes to mind is a darkness and a coldness, a sort of contained feeling, which in turn inspires ideas, however inaccurate they may be, that the exhibits are old, dirty, dusty, or poorly maintained. By contrast, thinking about the Okinawa Museum, I think of bright, warm, sunlit open spaces, white and clean, fresh and new. Granted, the building is brand new, but I somehow have the feeling that even in 10, 20, or 50 years its design will allow it to continue to maintain this sort of atmosphere. The content of the exhibits is also wonderfully executed, and fascinating to explore, but it can be surprising to realize how influential the architecture, the atmosphere of a museum is to the visitor’s experience, and not just the exhibits themselves.

(Images courtesy of the Culture Resort Festone‘s website, which I found through a Google search and which just so happens to have some really nice photos of the museum. Used without permission, for purely non-commercial non-profit purposes. Hope no one minds.)

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